Brexit ‘colossal mistake’, ex-Tory PM John Major tells MPs

Britain made a “colossal mistake” when it left the EU, former Conservative prime minister Sir John Major has told a cross-party group of MPs.

Sir John – appearing before the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee – said he was not a “significant Europhile”, but insisted that the UK was stronger inside the bloc.

Sir John, who campaigned to remain in the EU ahead of the 2016 Brexit referendum, said membership of the bloc “smoothed the way” for many of the agreements at the start of the process.

He said a lot of vital business was conducted on the fringes of EU meetings. “It was a very useful tent in which we could operate discreetly. We used that tent to the full.”

Sir John added: “That relationship with Ireland mattered then and it matters now. We are out of the European Union and they are in it. They are one of the ways we may stretch out and recover some of the things we so wilfully threw away when we left the EU.”

Sir John said he does not believe the EU is anything close to perfect. “Because I negotiated the Maastricht Treaty, the ultra Brexiteers regard me as a significant Europhile. That is not actually true.

“I am a very practical European. There are many things I don’t like. But I look at the package and I say, ‘Are people in my country better off and safer if we were inside the European Union or if we were outside?’ I reached the conclusion we would be better off inside.”

Mourning the fact that Britain was no longer one of the great three power blocs of the world, Europe, China and the US, Sir John said: “I think not just us but the whole of Europe is stronger with Britain in it.”

“Suppose we had a socking great row with China. Britain decided to put sanctions on China; China wouldn’t be much bothered. If the European Union did because we were being maltreated, they would feel quite differently about it.”

Sir John said he accepted that the Northern Ireland Protocol was a “mess” and had been “very poorly negotiated” by Mr Johnson’s government. The former PM backed the idea of all sides now compromising to ease checks in a “statesmanlike” manner.

In a warning to the DUP and Tory Brexiteers who have threatened to oppose any compromise struck by Mr Sunak, he added: “Statesmen who do [compromise] will succeed. Politicians who keep shouting slogans to their most extreme supporters will not.”

Sir John said he understood the sovereignty arguments of Brexiteers, but thought many of them are “more semantic than real” since no country is truly independent. “Who has pure sovereignty in Nato? We all sign up to Nato; nobody complains about that.”

He added: “I wonder how many of the cuts we have had, or the shortages for our public services, would not have happened but for the loss of GDP because we have left the European Union?”

Meanwhile, chancellor Jeremy Hunt was challenged in the Commons to admit Britain was “poorer” because of Brexit. Labour’s Barry Sheerman urged MPs from all parties to admit “we are poorer in this country” after the exit from the EU.

The MP for Huddersfield asked the chancellor if he agreed with comments by former Tory home secretary Amber Rudd that some Brexiteers, after “a few drinks”, will admit it had been disastrous.

He added: “Could we on all benches admit we are poorer in this country because of Brexit and do something about it?”

Mr Hunt – a Remainer in 2016 – replied: “If Labour really are against Brexit, they should have the courage of their convictions and say they want to rejoin the EU and that is the problem because they don’t believe they can make a success of it, they will never be able to run the British economy under it.”